John Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness has the intellectual ambition of formulating a synthesis – at least a tentative synthesis — of key elements of libertarian or classical liberal thought on the one hand and social democrat thought on the other hand. From the former Tomasi purports to take robust economic rights that have a strong claim on being recognized within any acceptable social-political order and an appreciation of the beneficial outcomes of spontaneous orders; and from the latter, he takes a strong commitment to “social justice” that is understood in difference principle fashion as a commitment to making the worst off members of society as well off as possible.
The number of contradictory positions associated with the words “liberal” and “liberalism” have led some to conclude that such expressions are now so unstable in their meaning that they lack sufficient descriptive power of any lasting significance. Of course, the same could be said of terms used to describe most modern political positions, including “conservatism” and “socialism.” Liberalism, however, seems particularly amorphous inasmuch as the phrase is associated with figures as apparently different in their starting points and conclusions such as Friedrich Hayek and John Rawls, but also David Hume and Immanuel Kant.
Or is it? In his new book Free Market Fairness, the political philosopher John Tomasi challenges and seeks to overcome some of the internal divisions among those who ascribe to the liberal nomenclature. Rather than attempting a synthesis of competing schools of liberal thought, Tomasi outlines what he is very careful to specify as a “hybrid” (87) political theory that draws upon classical liberalism and libertarianism on the one hand, and what he calls high or left liberalism on the other. Tomasi does not seek to somehow ground classical liberal institutions on the basis of left liberal moral imperatives, or vice-versa. Instead he argues for what he calls market democracy as a “justificatory hybrid . . . which combines insights from the classical and liberal traditions at the level of moral foundations” (95).
Over at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians site, they are having a symposium on John Tomasi’s new book Free Market Fairness. The book takes a Rawlsian approach to political philosophy, but argues that Rawlsians should treat economic liberty as one of the basic liberties. Under this approach, economic liberty would not simply be ignored by Rawlsians and treated as part of the matters that are subject to the difference principle, but would be given a very high priority similar to personal freedoms. The symposium includes a lot of important philosophers and is well worth reading. Here is a brief summary of one…